I am engaged to a wonderful man and we plan to get married in June next year. He has been following your work on alimony reform and told me you started an advice blog and I should write to you, so here I am. My husband pays a very large sum of alimony every month. Because his income dropped significantly since 2010 and he not been able to get a modification, the financial pressure on him is enormous – currently 60% of his income goes to his ex-wife who does not and will never support herself.
As you can probably guess, I have some very negative feelings about his ex-wife, but the alimony is only a part of it. My fiance shares custody of his 2 kids with his ex, and it is almost impossible for us to go more than a week without major drama over the children: either we didn’t return the right clothes or homework was neglected and it’s our fault, whatever. She loves getting into it with my fiance and has now started dragging me into their arguments too. It’s always been bad, but things worsened significantly when we got engaged in July (she is single and not dating).
Between the nasty emails, texts and phone calls, I am fed up. Two weeks ago one of the kids (10 year old boy) told me that their mom said I stole their daddy from her and broke up their family, which is absolutely not true (we met after he divorced). Now the kids are acting cold towards me and suddenly don’t want me around when they spend time with their dad, whereas before we all got along great. This has put him in a bad position with regard to how he spends his parenting time, and caused fights between the two of us. I think I should spend even more time with the kids, but he isn’t sure what we should do and wants to be alone with them at least some of the time they are with us. That hurts my feelings and I’m not sure it’s the right way to handle the situation.
Robin, I really love this guy, but if this is how things are going to be for the rest of my life, I’m not sure I should marry him. Any advice?
Fed Up in Florida
Dear Fed Up:
Oh boy oh boy oh boy. OK, taking a deep breath so I can center myself and answer your question from an objective point of view. Here we go:
You and I had a chance to “chat” over email and during that conversation you made it clear, and I believe, that you really love this man and his kids. You share critical values and goals and from what you described to me, I think this is a partnership that could really work. I’m an expert, you see, because I’ve been married twice. I know everything!
The fact is, you are marrying 4 people in June, not 1. While your negative interactions with his ex should diminish somewhat over time and as the children grow up and move out, his alimony obligation will likely continue to be a huge source of anger and financial trouble for you and your man. I’m not going to get started on that subject, however, because the alimony problem makes me somewhat fucking nuts and I’m really not in the mood to go into an alimony-induced rage right now. They can last for days, and I’d rather help you with your problem.
You’ve got a lot to deal with, so I want to parse it out and give you advice issue by issue in an orderly, numbered fashion. Is that cool with you? Oh wait, I get to make the rules. I’m the blog decider.
1. Your fiance’s ex-wife is a Drama-Drafter™. We all know the type, right? At every opportunity, she will create problems for you because she enjoys your reaction and she also enjoys the interaction that she maintains with her ex-husband. The solution to this is actually more simple than you may think: ignore her. Don’t respond, don’t interact, and encourage your future husband to do the same unless communication is absolutely necessary. For example, if she writes an email bitching about Timmy’s shirt getting torn on Dad’s parenting time, don’t respond. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Ignoring other people can be excruciatingly difficult. I recently discovered just how hard it can be when I wrote an op-ed for our local newspaper, and I was overwhelmed with negative comments and tweets from the Bicycle Nazi Coalition (also known as the BNC, which also stands for Bikes Not Cars and Bullies Need Caring). My initial reaction was to respond to the negative comments and tweets, but no matter how hard I tried to explain my position, none of them were interested and they came at me even harder. Why? Because they had a strict agenda and they saw me as the enemy.
What does this have to do with you? Who cares, it’s all about me! Duh.
Actually, and I probably don’t need to tell you this but I’m going to anyway, Starter Wife’s agenda is anger, resentment and jealousy, and you are Public Enemy #1. That isn’t likely to change, especially since she is still financially dependent upon your fiance and thus not willing to take responsibility for her own life. So, Fed Up, it’s up to you to engage your best efforts at ignoring this woman and not letting her get the best of you.
Honestly, I don’t understand why you are even in the mix. You aren’t even the stepmom yet, so you should not be involved in all the bullshit she creates on a weekly basis. Advice Point #1 for you today: tell her and your fiance via email that you don’t wish to be included in these conversations anymore, and then block her email address so she can’t engage you.
I love blocking It’s so awesome.
2. You have a very serious problem with the two children who will soon be your step-kids, and that is their mother is practicing the art form of child alienation. Child alienation is a very real and prevalent problem within many divorced families, and it is difficult to combat. The basic idea is that one parent poisons the minds of their children against the other parent. The motivations for this despicable practice can be varied but the result is always the same: confusing children and imbuing them with the belief that half of who they are is shit.
The best way to deal with this problem is to get out ahead of it rather than react to whatever new tactic she throws at you from time to time. How do you do this? First, sit down with the kids and tell them that you will never speak ill of their mother, but they should know that she is still sad about the divorce and she may say things that confuse them. Find them a counselor they can talk to when she breaks out her Shit Stir Stick, because little people do not have the inherent capability yet to discern motives and add grains of salt when necessary.
Stay above the fray, always. Whatever you do, don’t engage (see Advice Point #1). There is no winning this particular war. The ones who choose to wage it are without a moral compass and are too stupid to realize that they are using the emotional equivalent of chemical weapons on their own children.
3. How do you handle the sudden chill from the kids? While your instinct is to insert yourself even further into their lives and smother them with love, affection and XBox points, your instinct sucks (no offense, of course).
A better approach for you would be to take a few steps back and encourage your sweetheart to spend quality time alone with his kids. The last thing you want is to be seen as an interloper and a pushy “Bonus Mom.” God, I hate that term and I hate Leann Rimes as well. She gives us step moms a bad name – but that’s a whole other rant that I will save for another time. Hang back, spend some time with your friends, and give your fiance and his kids some space so they can repair the damage that is being caused by the Drama-Drafter.
4. Some final thoughts that may be helpful to you. If they aren’t, please remember that you get what you pay for and maybe you should pay a shrink to help you with your issues. I recently opined that one of the most difficult things to do is to put ourselves in the shoes of those whom we despise. The reason I think it may be helpful for you to get inside this woman’s head is because it may change your perspective about why she is behaving the way she is and how you choose to handle it. Think about this:
Is it possible that this woman is still in love with your fiance? It certainly sounds like it to me. She’s single, she’s not working and she spends a lot of time figuring out how to fight with him, which is just another way of maintaining their marital relationship long after its death.
It’s no coincidence that her bad behavior worsened when she heard about your engagement. Here we have a woman who has lost her time with her kids to some extent, has little going on in her life that is positive, and who now must fully come to terms with the fact that her marriage is over. His engagement to you was probably akin to a death knell for her – the final nail in the coffin of their dead marriage. Don’t you feel kind of bad for her? Try to be empathetic and imagine how you would feel if you were her, and conduct yourself in a compassionate or at least dispassionate manner in all your future dealings.
In one of the best books of all time, a dad gave the following advice to his young daughter: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. And possibly also that Buffalo Bill guy from Silence of the Lambs.
It’s not easy. When she continues to act up, you will likely spend more time fantasizing about her untimely demise (horrific car crash with her divorce lawyer at the wheel) than you will practicing empathy. However, I believe this approach will be a method by which you ultimately free yourself from this constant struggle.
In summary: Ignore, Detach, Step Back, Breath, and Empathize. And let me know if it works, please. Thank you for your letter. Here are some kittens to bring you cheer.